Defying orders doesn’t lead to a long and happy life. At least, that’s what I’ve been taught.
But on the ominous morning of November 8, 2018, with flames devouring the east side of Paradise and masses of frantic motorists following evacuation orders but gridlocking roads out of town, I stayed.
I thank God for helping me make the defiant decision to shelter in place. With scores of others in the middle of town I watched Paradise burn down around us. It was a dismal but spectacular display of explosions, frightened townspeople, and flaming pine trees roaring into the darkness above like blow torches.
Most of us made it out alive. But my memories remain seared by the sights, sounds, smells, and sorrows of that day.
The August Lahaina Fire in Maui stirred those memories. My heart goes out to those people. They too will never forget.
The Camp Fire flipped the town’s carefully crafted evacuation zones and sequence upside down. Instead, “Everybody! Out! Now!”
That’s what police officers were yelling at drivers packed on the Skyway, the only four-lane road out of town. “Move. Move! MOVE!” they bellowed at creeping traffic, stabbing their flashlight beams into the deepening darkness of the road out. By late morning the sunrise over Paradise would be hidden by what looked to outsiders like the black smoke of a volcanic eruption.
I could’ve died that wretched day.
But God answered my prayers as I asked for specific directions. “Is this one serious?” Yes, He replied in my spirit. “Do I need to leave?” Yes. “When?” Call Clay and Mary. Moments later her words were measured but urgent. “This is for real, Ken. Clay and I are in the car, leaving town. Get out now, while you can.”
God also gave me the presence of mind to snatch just the essentials from my home to fill a backpack. Water. Bread. Bible. Cell. Insurance papers. External hard drive with broadcast audio, docs, and images.
The other stuff was left behind.
Minutes later the traffic at Bille Road and Skyway stopped me. Again I prayed. “Should I abandon my truck and hike up toward Clark Road?” Yes. Go for it.
I walked east up Bille Road, facing cars waiting to join the gridlock on Skyway. Drivers were following evacuation orders but still sat in their idling cars, waiting. Stuck. As I moved east toward the menacing orange glow across the horizon, some of their eyes met mine with the unspoken question “WHAT are you doing?”
Around 9 a.m. near Bille and Clark Roads I met the first flames coming from the east. They were high in the trees and carried by swirling wind in fist-sized chunks of burning embers that quickly ignited more of our town tinder. But there was not yet an impassable wall of flame. So I carefully walked between hot spots past the post office.
Every person in the gathering of two dozen at the parking lot of the Alliance Church arrived from the east with a survival story. “Yeah, my place was engulfed in flames.” “Same for me. My whole neighborhood is gone.” All were safe, thankfully, albeit dazed. The 200-foot radius from the church to the outskirts of the parking lot gave us a surrounding asphalt ring of protection.
Sounds of this firestorm swirled around us from all directions: rumbling, hissing, buzzing, snapping, booming. Residential ammunition collections ignited into what sounded like distant popcorn popping. We hoped they would stay distant.
Power company trucks hastily carried workers on side streets to shut off electricity and gas mains. Drivers not jammed in traffic drove at twice the limits. Signals at intersections were dark. Convoys of fire trucks arrived from surrounding cities to try to fight this impossible fire.
In the safety of the parking lot, we stared at the hundred-foot-tall flames tearing through homes, garages, sheds, trailers, vehicles, along with the acres of beautiful pine and oak trees that have always drawn people to Paradise. Groups of homes burned simultaneously.
Even at 400 feet, we could feel their heat on Bille, south of us.
I prayed with several people that day, each time thanking God for His protection. When there’s trouble, of course, everybody prays. When times are good, though, few do. Odd, our human nature.
By 4:30 that afternoon, firefighters pulled one of their engines into the middle of our parking lot survival club, which had grown to about 200 people. I’d helped some of them as they labored to tune their car radios to KPAY, Chico, for a broadcast press conference at 3 p.m.
Flames were dying down around us. Daylight filtered through the darkness overhead. The threatening sounds of fire and explosions faded.
Though we’d defied evacuation orders, there was no chiding from these firefighters. If they recognized our wisdom of sheltering in place they said nothing about it.
Now, though, it was time to get out of town.
“We’ve carved a pathway through the destruction,” came the announcement. “Form a single line in your cars. Follow our lead vehicle. Don’t stop. Don’t turn to the right or left. Power lines on the ground are de-energized. Watch for falling trees and phone poles. You are required to leave at this time.”
Later I understood we were escorted out of town as soon as possible because the place had become not only a scene of destruction but also death.
Our line of cars slowly followed the pilot vehicle, winding around fallen trees and blackened remains of autos strewn haphazardly. Some power poles dangled midair from lines they once carried, now like inverted candles, flames licking up from below.
We rolled through smoky blocks of burned-out stores, restaurants, businesses, churches–all reduced to charred foundations filled with hot piles of debris and the last of their flames.
Still standing, however, was the iconic wooden bear in front of the Black Bear Diner, loyally gripping his “WELCOME TO BEARADISE” sign. The restaurant behind was gone.
Our convoy guide turned us loose on the edge of town. I headed down the hill from Paradise and found it oddly peaceful, undisturbed. The quiet sky was clear, the air was fresh.
From the Bible, Isaiah 30:21, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, you will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it.’” Been there. Done that. I thanked God again.
Near Butte College I called daughter Adina. “Hey – I’m alive.” “Wow,” she said. “We were really concerned about you! Thank God you’re OK.” “Really,” I said, then “You’re not going to believe what’s going on up there right now.”
Adina’s compassion and caring were well-received. She may have sensed even better than I the gravity of the situation. That day was a dance with death.
Within a week I learned that my home and audio studio had indeed burned to the ground. Our neighborhood was reduced to a bed of ashes for still-standing chimneys.
KPAY had announced that afternoon that the Red Cross was setting up evacuation centers in Chico, Oroville, and beyond. I kept moving toward Oroville, thinking it would have the fewest people.
The man at the Red Cross Evacuation desk at Oroville Nazarene Church asked “May I help you?” I took a breath. “You sure can,” I said. With heat-seared face and ashes on my hair and shoulders, I’d been changed in one day from a giver to a taker.
The gracious OroNaz church people were eager to help. They replaced chairs in their sanctuary with Red Cross cots for us, then fed us dinner. Adrenalin-pumped survivor chatter that night continued well past 1 a.m.
Heart-warming messages and gifts from friends, old and new, began to pour in. Compassionate people provided everything from blankets to combs and clothing–necessities for those of us who’d just lost everything.
Such encouragement! As the emotional smoke cleared, we chuckled that we’d been through “the fastest de-cluttering program of our lives.”
Mike Kehoe hunted me down at OroNaz and invited me to move in with him and Susan at their place in Biggs until I could get back on my feet. I stayed with them for a half year.
It’s an empty feeling to dig through the ashes of what used to be your audio studio. Anything of wood (cabinets) or paper (books, notes, letters, stamps, pictures, FCC licenses) is gone. The mixer is but a charred chassis with holes where knobs once worked. The mic has evaporated in the heat, leaving only the metal grid of the windscreen. Anything like plastic or insulation has left the scene in roiling smoke.
Samaritan’s Purse sent a group of more than 25 volunteers to sift through the ashes of my place. “Not much here, Mr. Boone. Would you like us to save some of these bricks?” “Umm, well. I guess so.”
That led to hauling a pile of more than 400 charred bricks from what was left of Paradise to Red Bluff. They’ve since been built into an arced memorial wall in my new back yard. I call it my “Ebenezer,” from I Samuel 7:12 in the Bible: “Then Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’”
Now, whenever somebody asks about it, I say “There’s a barnburner of a story behind that…” And I’m very thankful to be alive to tell it.
Ken Boone is a son, brother, uncle, husband, father, and grandfather. In 1969 he started his work in radio at KEAR-FM, San Francisco, as a high-school volunteer. Later he served with the Family Radio Network until 1990, then continued with syndication of his own WE KIDS, a Christ-centered radio program for littles and their families. WE KIDS will be retiring at the end of this year after more than 37 years on the air, leaving Ken more time to volunteer, travel, and love life in Red Bluff with his wife Carolyn.
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